Lat/Long: 33.4500° S, 70.6667° W
Weather Conditions: 68F (20C) Clear
Torres del Paine
Full Field Update #3
The Earthducation team is continuing its travels in South America, capturing education and sustainability narratives from a broad array of individuals across Peru and Chile. We traveled from Lima to the Amazon Basin in Peru, and then on to the Atacama Desert in Chile, before finishing our journey in a truly unique and phenomenally beautiful region: Patagonia. This full update details our stay in Torres del Paine National Park, part of the Patagonian region of southern Chile.
Day 10: October 29
We awoke early, knowing that the days ahead would be filled with many hours of travel but also some exciting new experiences. We traveled first by bus from San Pedro de Atacama to Calama, where we would board a flight to Santiago. As we watched the desert landscape pass and reflected on the interviews we’d captured within this region, we understood how one of the main concerns within this region is water.
Once at the airport, after about a two-hour delay, we boarded our plane for Santiago, a 3-hour flight almost directly south of Calama. Flying into Santiago at sunset was stunning as we viewed the mountains of the Andes to the east and the Chilean Coastal Range to the west. The Andes mountains within the region around Santiago are quite high, with the tallest being the Tupungato volcano at 6,570 m (21,555 ft).
This evening we stayed at a hotel literally across the street from the airport as we would be catching our next flight, to Punta Arenas, in the early morning.
Day 11: October 30
Punta Arenas, known as the “sandy point,” is the capital of Chile’s southernmost region and is located on the north shore of the Strait of Magellan. If you view the location of Punta Arenas on a map, you can see why the geopolitical importance of this small city has remained high over the past two centuries, due to its logistic importance in accessing the Antarctic Peninsula.
Our 3.5-hour flight was just the beginning of our travels today, as we still had a 5-hour drive to reach Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia, our final destination. The park encompasses over 242,000 hectares (597,595 acres) in southern Chile. UNESCO declared Torres del Paine a world biosphere reserve in 1978; biosphere reserves are considered learning sites for sustainable development.
If you’ve ever visited or viewed photos of Patagonia, you can understand how we enjoyed every minute of our drive through this landscape, traveling through a steppe region with sheep and horses scattered about, to the beautiful iconic mountain peaks of Torres del Paine. Millions of years ago, successive waves of geological and glaciological phenomena created the spectacular land formations in this area, including the namesake Torres del Paine series of magma and granite peaks that tower up to 3,000 meters (9,843 feet), and the Cuernos del Paine, which rise to over 2,000 meters (6,562 feet).
The Chilean part of Patagonia, where we were located, embraces the southern provinces and regions of Valdivia, Llanquihue, Aysén and Magallanes, including the west side of Tierra del Fuego and Cape Horn, and Palena Province in Los Lagos Region.
We arrived at Explora Hotel Salto Chico (which would serve as our home base during our stay in Torres del Paine) just as the sun was setting. The views of the Andes were breathtaking. From the gauchos herding cattle next to the road, to the towering peaks of Torres del Paine, we knew we were in for an unparalleled treat.
Day 12: October 31
Our goal during our stay in Patagonia was to explore the landscape and speak with the people as much as we possibly could in the short time we had there. Our first excursion connected us with a gaucho, the equivalent of an American cowboy, who guided us by horseback through the region of Lake Toro. We rode through both forests and grasslands, taking in the beautiful views of Lake Toro and the Serrano River. We were hoping to also see the peaks of the Andes, but it rained the entire time, with low-hanging clouds. After our ride, we interviewed our gaucho, Andres Millartureo, and our guide, Magadelena.
Magadelena (Magda), who was born in Punta Arenas, shared that her life dream was to work in the park. Her favorite thing about the Patagonian region is the beauty of it, which literally changes every day with the weather. Magda said, “I just love this place. It’s a magic place.” She also emphasized that education is necessary and is a right for everyone, which is a challenge in Chile.
Magda said, “Here in Chile it’s a big problem now with the universities as it’s very expensive and not everyone can afford it. Only if you have enough money. It’s expensive even for people who have money.” She also noted that within Patagonia there are few universities and very few career options.
Magda traveled to Santiago for her education, which was “extremely expensive.” In describing her life in Patagonia, she explained, “We have a different life here as compared to the big city. We have a family life. We are very calm people. Very friendly. That’s my life.”
When reflecting on sustainability in Chile, Magda shared, “Sustainability in Chile is a new concept. People talk about it a great deal, but not in the right way.” She emphasized that people need to work with the local people and help them take care of nature. “It’s a beautiful land and we have to care as it is not forever.”
Our next exploration within the park was a 5 km hike to the top of Cerro Condor (Condor Lookout), northeast of our hotel in Torres del Paine. Our guide, Mariele Urra, explained early in the hike that more than 28,000 hectares (approximately 70,000 acres — close to 70,000 football fields) of the park burnt in January 2012 due to the actions of a careless tourist. The tourist lit his toilet paper on fire rather than carrying it out of the park as he had been instructed to do, and in turn started a raging wildfire that devastated a large portion of Torres del Paine. Thousands of people were evacuated from their homes, hotels, and campsites as a result of the fire, and 171 homes were destroyed.
We immediately grasped the wildfire’s impact, as nearly all the trees at the start of our hike were bare and much of the ground was still charred, creating an eerie landscape reminiscent of scenes from Lord of the Rings.
Halfway to Cerro Condor, the trail began to weave its way around switchbacks up a very steep hill. We climbed more than 250 meters (850 ft.) to the top, where we took in the beautiful vista of Lake Pehoe and Los Cuernos (the horns) of Torres del Paine. Mariele showed us where several condor nests have been found, noting that on a “lucky” day hikers would see the condors.
Luck was on our side as within minutes of reaching the peak, a condor graciously sailed within 20 meters of us, gliding for more than a minute without a single wing flap. Soon after, its mate and baby (identified by our guide) followed suit, providing us with a spectacular exhibit set against the backdrop of the Torres del Paine peaks, a sight we will never forget.
The Andean Condor, larger than its California Condor cousin, is a large black vulture with a ruff of white feathers surrounding the base of its neck and a wingspan of 9 to 10.5 feet! We were also fortunate to see two Black-chested Buzzard Eagles, who, like the condors, seemed to be enjoying the nearly 40mph winds on top of Cerro Condor. We tried to capture a few photos, but were blown over by the forceful winds and had to make our way back down the trail to more relaxed conditions.
Upon arrival back at our hotel, we interviewed our guide Mariele, a 27 year-old former designer, photographer, and birder from Santiago. Mariele expressed that she became bored sitting in front of the computer during her design job and wanted to “get out in nature and explore the world” – a dream shared by many 9-5 designers, but which very few ever realize. Mariele has been a guide at Explora for four months and has no ambitions of leaving in the near future.
Day 13: November 1
A trek to Grey Glacier in the Southern Patagonian Ice Field was our goal for today. We again awoke early, this time to catch a 30-minute boat ride across Lake Pehoé to the Pehoé Refuge. The wind and rain was blistering, and our catamaran was taking on waves over five feet high that provided an exciting ride before we even began our hike.
We arrived at the refuge and started into an 8-mile hike. It was not your run-of-the-mill hike. It was literally pouring rain, and the wind was blowing so strong it reminded Aaron of the Arctic. During our trek, we encountered a multitude of stunning landscapes, everything from charred forests damaged by the aforementioned wildfire, to absolutely awe-inspiring views of Grey Lake, the Southern Ice Field, the Paine Massif, and the Olguin Mountains.
After lunch at a small backpackers’ hostel near Grey Lake, we boarded a boat that would transport us across the lake for a close-up view of the glacier wall. Grey Glacier was phenomenal. The strong blues of the ice set against the gray sky, the lake, and the mountains was captivating, and the glacier seemed almost alive as it shifted and calved, the icy remains of which floated in the lake around us.
Day 14: November 2
Before embarking on our next exploration via horseback, we interviewed Guillermo Parra, the manager at Explora Hotel Salto Chico. Guillermo is a Venezualan citizen who grew up in Peru. He discussed the importance of Explora being able to understand and contribute to conservation — that is, how to “preserve the beauties so everyone can see it.” Guillermo noted that local people from the nearest town of Puerto Natales didn’t start coming to the park until recently. Now, both locals and foreign tourists are travelling to the region to “get inspired, to see [Torres del Paine] and appreciate nature.”
In an attempt to further capture the landscape and people in this beautiful park, we pursued yet another horseback ride. This time we were fortunate to experience clear weather as we crossed the Serrano prairie and along the turquoise waters of the Serrano River, which provided us with a stunning view of the snowy peaks of Mount Balmaceda. We rode this time with two gauchos plus an Explora guide, Lues Matta.
After an exhilarating ride, we sat down with Lues back at the stable. Lues commented that he believes Chile is still working toward the idea of sustainability and that within Patagonia, “tourism is a new thing. We are trying to do the best thing to respect the nature. We have much more to do and we are just learning.” He continued, “With a beautiful place like this, who knows what it will be like in two years. We need to get back to our roots.”
Day 15: November 3
The morning of our departure from Torres del Paine was more than bittersweet. We were supremely happy with our experiences and our interviews, and surely did not want to leave this awe-inspiring and beautiful place. Nevertheless, we loaded the van at 7:30 for our 5-hour van ride back to Punta Arenas, where we would catch a 7-hour flight to Santiago via Puerto Montt.
Day 16: November 4
And that brings us to the conclusion of Expedition 4: South America. After a great night’s rest, we are completing the final update for the expedition here in the beautiful city of Santiago, Chile. What a trip it’s been!
Communities and Cities Visited: 16
Interviews Captured: 50+
Gigabytes of Media Captured: 394 GB
Videos Captured: 624 Clips (10 hours, 23 minutes)
Means of Transportation: Foot, Plane, Motocar, Boat, Car, Canoe
Total Flights Taken: 9
Friends Made: 385,742,554 (population of South America)
Condors Seen: 8
Huemul Seen: 1 (only 500 in park)
Total Miles Driven: 1,430K (889 Miles)
Photos Taken: 8,348